French 'baguetti' Western plays Hollywood at its own game

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Imagine a psychedelic, French Western, filmed in English, shot partly in Spain, with the Dutch-born director Jan Kounen at the helm and the British comedian Eddie Izzard in a supporting role as a nasty German cowboy.

How could such a movie fail? Blueberry, which premieres at a film festival in Monaco next week, is not a comedy Western. It is a serious and expensive attempt by the French movie industry to play Hollywood at its own game - Cowboys and Indians. This game was abandoned by Hollywood for many years but it has just been rediscovered. Three big, American-made Westerns are also due out this year.

The genre was briefly revived in the 1960s with a slew of Italian-produced cowboy films, the "Spaghetti Westerns". Now the French producers of Blueberry - which cost €42m (£29m), making it one of the most expensive French films to be made - hope they have reinvented the Western for the 21st century.

The film has plenty of action and gun duels and Indians and horses and baddies and goodies and sweeping, open spaces. It also has bizarre psychedelic sequences of interior mental struggle as the hero, Marshal Mike Blueberry, played by the French actor Vincent Cassel, takes peyote and consults Indian shamans to help him wrestle with a mysterious past.

If that does not appeal, you might like the idea of the cross-dressing Izzard playing a Teutonic villain. Izzard comments on his website: "The Spaghetti Westerns were Italian Westerns in English. This is a French Western in English, so I'm calling it a 'Baguetti Western'."

French Westerns are not new, although this is the first for 36 years. A score of silent, French Western movies were made between 1910 and 1914 by Joe Hamman, "the French John Wayne", using the marshes of the Camargue in the Rhône delta to represent the prairies, and the hills of Provence for the Rockies. The celebrated horsemen of the Camargue - the gardians- acted as both cowboys and Indians.

After a brief revival of L'Ouesterne in the 1960s, the sub-genre died out. The last was Robert Hossein's Une corde et un colt (A rope and a gun).

Blueberry was filmed in English and North American Indian languages on location in Durango in Mexico and Almeria in Spain. Cassel, husband of the actress Monica Bellucci, said: "I was born in the 20th arrondissement of Paris and feel completely French, so we had to bend the script a little. We changed the character (of Blueberry) to make him into a Cajun who had spent some time in Texas."

Everything possible has been done to give the movie an authentic Western look and feel. The cast includes the Hollywood stars Michael Madsen, Dennis Hopper, Ernest Borgnine and Juliette Lewis.

None the less, the producers are having difficulty in persuading the English-speaking world to take the movie seriously. Blueberry has been pre-sold to almost every country but no opening date has been agreed for the US or Britain.

The story line of Blueberry comes from a series of 27 French cartoon Western novels which have had a large following in France since the mid-1960s.

It may seem odd that the French movie industry, which regards itself as one of the last defences against Hollywood culture, should want to make a Western.

But why not? If Disney can mangle the Hunchback of Notre Dame, why shouldn't there be a Texan marshal with a Parisian accent? Hervé Ciret, who has made a film about the early French Westerns, said: "Blueberry may be an American but he is a French invention and he is part of French culture. The American West has become part of a global mythology, not just America's mythology."